Sunday, May 13, 2012

On being difficult

Something I don't often talk about is my fear of shutting down in a stressful situation. I have never really tried to explain it to anyone, and it is not something I think about in words. I know the physical sensation of shutting down, but rarely think about what is really happening. I try very hard to avoid situations where it might occur, and the fear of shutting down causes considerable anxiety. It may of course be a spiral – the shutdown is caused by anxiety, and the fear causes more anxiety, which increases the possibility of shutdown. And the only tools I have is avoidance and preparation. Before going into an unknown place or talking to somebody, or doing something new, I have to prepare myself, think about things that might happen, things people might do or say, and try to develop scripts with which I can respond. This is not very effective, situations and people are mostly unpredictable. Avoidance is also not always possible, and I think my unwillingness and stubbornness can be exasperating to others. If only they could understand that I really have no desire to be 'difficult'. I take no pride in it, and I find it distressing to see the effect it has on others.

It is awful to be seen as 'difficult' when I am scared and my heart feels like it is skipping beats and my thoughts are whirling and worst of all – I lose the ability to explain, to 'use my words'. I am good with words and languages, I love words – but when shutdown happens, I have no words, only fear and physical feelings. Another very unfortunate aspect of shutdown is that I lash out at people who try to help. Maybe because they try by asking questions, expecting a response from me, and it puts more pressure on me to talk and act rationally when I have lost the ability to do so.

I will say it again – I really hate that people see me as a difficult person. Because that is not who I am. I don't like upsetting anybody, I don't like derailing plans, I like things to go smoothly and calmly, I am not a selfish person who want things to go my way. I do know it is not always easy to live with me and to cope with my 'moods'. But it seems unfair that I spend a lot of energy adapting to other people, suppressing my 'otherness' and my instinctive reactions – and when I do not cope at times, I am seen as difficult.

What does shutdown feel like? What happens? It is so hard to describe something that essentially shuts out language, that makes me lose my words. And the inability to describe it makes it hard to convince others that it does happen. Maybe I can try do describe situations where it has happened. Phone calls can trigger shutdown. I don't like talking on the phone and when the sound is bad or someone talks too fast or says things I don't understand, I get anxious and it has happened a few times that I simply had to put the phone down because I cannot speak or get any words out. Apart from the anxiety, it is also very embarrassing and causes me to be even more scared of making calls.

When I am already anxious, small unexpected things can stop me in my tracks. I have gone into unfamiliar shops with the intention of buying something, and then I either cannot figure out where to pay, or the person behind the till asks something I cannot understand, and then I have to leave the shop with empty hands because I stopped being able to think and talk. I have to flee. I know there are almost always people around one can ask for help, but when you cannot talk, how can you ask?

When I lose my words and cannot think clearly, it does not mean that I am unaware of others and unaware of appropriate ways to act. I try hard not to cry, I manage to suppress the agitated sounds I feel like making, I stop myself from hiding my face behind my hands. I have to do this, because acting like I instinctively want to will attract attention I feel unable to cope with. I dread being in any situation where there is not a way out, a bathroom to hide in, my own car to drive away in.

This post started out as an effort to explain shutdowns. It ends with me having the urge to tell the people who know me – I AM NOT A DIFFICULT PERSON. I am different, I have different needs, different fears, and I am aware of expectations and the needs of others and I try my best to do what is best for everybody. I try my best. But I have challenges that I face, and when protecting myself clash with the needs and wants of other people, I would like them to understand that I am not selfish. Or difficult. Or stubborn.  Just temporarily unable to think clearly and unable to explain why I feel overwhelmed.


  1. Now, while you have your words, do you know what would help? Like what could a loved one do to help you if they see you in shutdown? Does physical touch like a hug help or hinder? Questions obviously don't help. Is fleeing with you helpful? Taking over and guessing what you wanted?

  2. This resonates with me, Cecile. I went to a party with my two children this weekend and - you know what? - no more parties for awhile. If we can do as you say, we will be less "difficult" -- and so will life!!! Thanks for making me feel better about that party!!!